Labour, Identity and Hustle in the Time of Capitalism


When a System sanctions a distinctly distressing state of being as the norm and poses it as the essentiality that keeps its engines well-oiled and running, is this being considered problematic? What if the System, larger than you or me or the weakened collective conscience, is posed unwaveringly as the overarching answer to problems of the nation and the self, as the One True Resolution? If Durkheim was to be summoned over dinner, would he confirm this dissonance as pathology? Is mental health, or rather the lack thereof, an acceptable trade-off for this elusive Resolution of the free market variety?

Identity is not an isolated thing. It functionally exists in relation to the sense of self, social environment, and dominant culture. It is both the guiding force for motivations, behaviors, and actions, as well as a cumulative consequence of them. It is formed over time, it prescribes to basic tenets of the self, and yet it is ever changing. Identity, importantly, is crucial to the processing and navigating of the world.

What do we make of labour, then? Marx determined the value of a commodity in relation to the labour required to produce it, and in doing so, ascribed it quantification. Labor power itself, in this way, became a commodity. Adam Smith similarly proposed that labour is the measure of the exchangeable value of commodities. And so on, in despairing consensus.

The System strips one of human identity and replaces it with that of human capital. Not only selfhood, but self-worth is defined within the constraints of labor productivity. To simply ‘be’ is not enough, the idea of an intrinsically fulfilled self is neither reasonable nor acceptable. To be, one must prove the right to be, by employing one’s intellectual, mental, and physical resources to fuel the System, to reiterate its ideals, and to assure its perpetuity. So, who in their right mind would pander to an idea as alarming as becoming a Thing, a substitutable, transmutable, replaceable object, the property of the System, the plaything of HR departments? Most of us, as it turns out. And this troubling state of being is only propelled by the mental health crisis.

The fetishization of success is blatant. Teenagers wearing CEO,00,00,000 t-shirts, middle-aged men dreaming of making it to the Forbes top 30, the obsession of the world with hustle culture – the ‘rise and grind’, the ‘don’t stop when you’re tired’, the ‘go hard or go home’ of it all. The Instagram fueled highlight reels and displays of wealth, the music about fast cars and beautiful girls and ‘making it’ (think Post Malone and Quavo’s ‘worked so hard forgot how to vacation’, Congratulations, 2016), the lavish YouTube travelogues, the ‘keeping up’ with the Kardashians – not just chronologically, but by means of lifestyle and identity – are all a guise that exacerbates the problem at hand. The urgent need to modify, push, and force oneself to be of more value to the System to the point of declining health is packaged in the ever-appealing ideology of the hustle. The metaphorical pink ribbon on top is its self-sustenance. A seemingly fulfilling (but internally shallow) culture of heightened labor productivity is created by implying that there is pride, status, and glory in the hustle, when it may be a well disguised, convenient justification for overworking the human capital to the point of industrial efficiency.

Our anxieties are inextricably woven into the System – your mental health break is nourishment for it, my panic attack, replenishment. The sweet cherry on top is the brands profiting off of quirky mental health merch (think ‘OMG I’m so OCD! T-shirts). We’re feeding right into what harms us and it is dangerous, terrifying, and uncertain.

Carl Rogers talked about how our personality and behavioral problems are rooted in faulty self-concepts. We pander to a culturally performative idea of success (think of culture in an industrial context), create an identity around it (one that is truer to what the System wants than to our most authentic selves), suffer from impostor syndrome, experience dissonance, and inevitably end up feeling bad. Our anxieties peak and our defense mechanisms break (only to be fixed again). The System makes us feel horrible about ourselves, but we repeat the cycle – because a preordained, rigid framework of what it means to be worthy, and what it means to be alive at all, handed to us as a pre-ordered mold – just looks so much safer.

This perspective does not take into account extenuating socio-economic circumstances leading to employment/a different kind of involuntary ‘pandering’, or the nuances of the One True Resolution and what they mean for the Indian economy. It is a commentary on something that we are all affected by, but are surprisingly blind to. Just like every other thought my brain has ever mustered, this blurb is a question, not an answer. Where do we go from here? What is the solution? How do we curb the crisis and save the kids? The day I can answer any one of these questions, I’ll write about it here…for now, I’ll leave you with a poem of hope for the future, and for the kids:

we coerce small hands into armor
three sizes too big, say
go, make enemies out of each other!

children, be inimitable! golden destiny
to make the wealthy man fatter, it is yours
now enter the battleground…

the moirai wait for you.

but what about when our children will summon us
to lay ear-down on the earth and listen
to where humanness and humanity converge?

if we find grace nestled in belligerence
dignity in child’s play…
should we let the children play?

our children will build honeysuckle fortifications
and lock their doors to beasts who beckon
with promises of abundance

my babe will offer tea, neighbors bring milk
and they will together source jaggery
from the evening markets

genesis of collaborators, they will ask
have you ever seen players on different fields
playing on the same team?

we will hold our breaths for half decades,
anxiously sign permission slips for them
to ration limb and bone and body…

’til our children emerge as an embankment that holds
an imperishable truth, and whispers
in the silence of morningtide,

…i care not to compete
i concern not myself with contention
i love, i love, i love…

Sukhnidh Kaur is an educator, researcher and youth advocate from Mumbai.

Featured image: Today’s Parent

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